Wittgenstein's Lectures on Religious Belief (2001)

Michael Martin

In 1938 Wittgenstein gave a series of three lectures on religious belief at Cambridge. We do not have his own lecture notes but we do have twenty pages of notes taken down by one or more of his students.[1] Wittgenstein did not check their accuracy and they may not in fact be accurate in every detail.[2] Nevertheless, they are the most complete account we have of his views on the subject.[3] Many of the major themes contained in these lectures that are elusive and subject to various interpretations I will avoid as much as possible here. In this paper I will concentrate instead on three ideas in the lectures -- the nature of religious beliefs, the incommensurability of religious and nonreligious beliefs, and the unreasonableness of religious beliefs -- that seem relatively clear,[4] although even here Wittgenstein can be interpreted in different ways Wittgenstein's views can be briefly stated as follows: religious belief is an unshakable commitment that guides one's entire life and is not based on evidence or arguments; it is incommensurable with atheistic thought in the sense that the assertions of believers and nonbelievers do not contradict one another; and although religious belief is not reasonable, it is not unreasonable. A number of important questions can be raised about these positions. Can all religious belief be characterized in the way Wittgenstein suggests? What does he mean by saying that the atheist and the believer do not contradict one another? Whatever he means, is there any reason to suppose that what he says is true? What is the distinction that Wittgenstein makes between being not reasonable and being unreasonable? Is it really true that religious beliefs are not unreasonable? If they are unreasonable, what is wrong with this? In what follows I will consider these questions.

Wittgenstein on the Nature of a Religion Beliefs

A reader of Wittgenstein's lectures might well be puzzled about how they should be understood. On the one hand, they seem to present a general view of the nature of religious belief. Wittgenstein never says or implies that he intends his comments to apply only to religious beliefs in a certain context, e.g. Protestant Christianity. On the other hand, he does not say explicitly that he intends them to apply to religions generally. If one does interpret him to be putting forth a general view of the nature of religious belief then, as I will show, his thesis can be easily refuted. Should it be so interpreted? One reason for rejecting his thesis as a general view is provided by the principle of tolerance in textual interpretation which dictates that one avoid interpretations that can be easily refuted. This principle is especially applicable to Wittgenstein who one assumes had a subtle understanding of religious belief. Others reasons might also be offered for supposing that Wittgenstein would not attempt to provide a general account of religious belief. First, such an attempt seems out of keeping with spirit of his later philosophy; especially, with his comment concerning games in The Philosophical Investigations:[5]

Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' - but look and see whether there is anything common to all. - For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. (Sec. 66)

Just as there is no essential property common to all games it might seem reasonable to suppose that Wittgenstein would have argued that there is no essential property common to all the religious beliefs manifested in the various religions. In addition, it is well known that people in the same religion can hold beliefs in different ways. Consider Catholicism. Some Catholics are marginally members of the Church, going to services only on Christmas and Easter, believing only some of the Church's doctrines and these with a low degree of intensity and conviction; others are devout followers of all the dictates of the Church, believing them with great intensity and without question. Further, it takes only an elementary understanding of comparative religions to know that there is a great variety of religions in the world. Given this variety - from Catholicism to Calvinism, Humanism to Hinduism, Buddhism to Bahaism - why should we expect to be able to talk about religious belief in general terms?

On the other hand, there are some considerations that suggest that Wittgenstein, despite the reasons given above, might have supposed he was specifying the general characteristics of religious beliefs. First, since he gave his lectures the transition period between the Tractatus and The Philosophical Investigations, it is conceivable that he was to some extent still under the influence of the Tractatus even though his lectures are closer in spirit to the The Philosophical Investigations. Second, even if he had broken away from its influence to a large extent, it is possible that he had not yet developed the notion of language games or, at the very least, that he had not applied it to religion. Granted, it might be considered surprising that Wittgenstein overlooked this application since, as George Pitchard has brought to our attention, William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience had made the very point about "religion" that Wittgenstein later made about "game" and Wittgenstein had read James' work.[6] However, it is not clear when Wittgenstein read James. Third, despite Wittgenstein's brilliance, he may not have been well widely read in certain crucial areas. For example, it is possible that he was simply ignorant of certain basic facts of comparative religion that would cast doubts on his general claims.

Is an interpretation available that does not assume that Wittgenstein is making general claims about the nature of religion? There are a number but the more obvious ones are either dubious or not very interesting. For example, it might be suggested that some religious beliefs have the properties that he specifies. But few people would deny this. One might also suggest that all Protestant religious beliefs have the characteristics that he identifies. But it is doubtful that this is true. Liberal Protestant thought, for example, does not seem to have all the characteristics that he sets forth. In particular, liberal theologians have attempted to make Christianity compatible with the findings of science. One might suggest that some Protestant religious beliefs have the properties that he characterizes. But who would deny that this is true given the wide variety of different approaches that can be incorporated under the rubric of Protestantism?

Is there any interpretation that makes Wittgenstein's view neither noncontroversial nor clearly wrong? Let us consider the problem in more detail. Wittgenstein begins the first lecture by saying:

An Austrian general said to someone: 'I shall think of you after my death, if that should be possible'. We can imagine one group who would find this ludicrous, another who wouldn't....

Suppose that someone believed in the Last Judgement, and I don't, does this mean that I believe the opposite of him, just that there won't be such a thing? I would say: "not at all, or not always".

Suppose I say that the body will rot, and another says "No. Particles will rejoin in a thousand years, and there will be a Resurrection of you". If someone said: "Wittgenstein, do you believe in this?" I'd say: "No." "Do you contradict the man?" I'd say: "No"....

Suppose someone were a believer and said: "I believe in a Last Judgement," and I said; "Well, I'm not so sure. Possibly". You would say that there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said "There is a German aeroplane overhead", and I said " Possibly I'm not so sure" you'd say we were fairly near.

It isn't a question of my being near him, but on an entirely different plane, which you can express by saying: "You mean something altogether different, Wittgenstein".

The difference might not show up at all in any explanation of meaning.[7]

Since nearly all the examples of religious belief Wittgenstein gives involve life after death and the Last Judgement, the problem posed above immediately comes to the fore. Are we to suppose that he thinks that belief in life after death and in the last Judgement are typical of religious belief? If so, in what way? Not all religious people believe in life after death in the sense assumed in Wittgenstein's lectures; that is, in terms of personal survival. And not even all forms of Protestantism believe in the Last Judgement. One would certainly suppose that Wittgenstein knew this. Is another interpretation possible?

Perhaps the point that Wittgenstein was trying to make is that belief in the Last Judgement and life after death are typical of religious belief in the sense that people who hold such beliefs characteristically talk past nonreligious people. What is typical, then, is not the content of the beliefs in his examples but their incommensurability with nonreligious belief. Is this interpretation plausible? Although it might be true that some theists and atheists talk past one another, is it really true that all or even most of them do? Perhaps only rather sophisticated theists and unsophisticated atheists talk past one another. When an ordinary unsophisticated Christian says that Jesus rose from the dead and an atheist denies this, why should we doubt that they are contradicting each other? Of course, if a sophisticated Christian who has been schooled in the teaching of Rudolf Bultman[8] says that Jesus arose from the dead and Madelyn Murray O'Hair denies this, one might begin to doubt that they are talking about the same thing. But this situation is not as common as Wittgenstein seems to suppose. Who would want to deny the thesis that some religious believers and nonbelievers talk past one another?

In addition to the incommensurability of religious belief Wittgenstein seems to suppose that it is unshakable and that it regulates one's entire life. Speaking again of the Last Judgement he says:

Whenever he does anything, this is before his mind. In a way, how are we to know whether to say he believes this will happen or not?

Asking him is not enough. He will probably say he has proof. But he has what you might call an unshakeable belief. It will show, not by reasoning or by appeal to ordinary grounds for belief, but rather by regulating for in all his life.[9]

He also holds religious beliefs are not based on evidence. He maintains, "we don't talk about hypothesis, or about high probability. Nor about knowing" with respect to religious belief. Christianity "doesn't rest on an historical basis" and beliefs concerning it "are not treated as historical, empirical propositions".[10] Wittgenstein wants true religious belief to be distinguished from superstition. Commenting on Father O'Hara's attempt to offer scientific arguments he remarks, "if this is religious belief, then it is superstition", and he then says of O'Hara, "here is a man who is cheating himself".[11]

How are these last passages to be understood? Is Wittgenstein suggesting that if religious belief is based on evidence it is an inferior type; perhaps not really religious belief at all but superstition? We are not told how many religious people have superstitious belief in this sense but my guess is that the number would be very large. Many Christian fundamentalists both past and present rely on what they take to be evidence for their beliefs -- for example, Biblical miracles -- and many sophisticated believers from 17th and 18th Century Deists to the contemporary philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne,[12] have based or do base their religious views on evidential considerations. To dismiss all of these views as superstition is surely not to be very sensitive to the varieties of religious belief. One can, of course, stipulate that religious belief based on evidence is superstition, but I would not think that this is how "superstition" is normally used nor that it is terribly helpful in understanding religious belief. Moreover, since the third Session of the First Vatican Council of 1870, it has been one dogma of the Catholic Church that God's existence can be proven by the natural light of reason and another that the Christian religion can be proven by the evidence of miracles.[13] Would this view also be characterized by Wittgenstein as superstition? If so, then, according to him, the religion of approximately 950 million people is based on superstition. Perhaps it is. However, one would suppose that in order to show this one would need to examine the arguments given for the existence of God and the alleged miracles that are used by the Church to support its claims. It is surely not enough simply to point out that the Church appeals to evidence and arguments to show that Catholicism is based on superstition. On the other hand, if Wittgenstein's point is simply that some religious belief based on evidence is inferior and amounts to superstition, then who would deny it?

Problems arise also with Wittgenstein's claim that religious belief is unshakable and regulates all of one's life. If it is a general claim, it is false for although this may be true of some religious belief, it does not characterize all or even most of it. Sociologists of religion have pointed out that many modern religious believers compartmentalize their religious beliefs in such a way that they have little effect on the rest of their lives. Further, it is unclear just how unshakable many people's religious beliefs are. Studies show that to a certain extent religious conviction is a function of education. The more education people have, the less they tend to have strong religious convictions.[14] This suggests that the religious beliefs of a person can often be shaken simply by education. In my own experience as a teacher, I have seen rather sophisticated people give up their belief in Christianity when exposed to evidence of which they were not previously aware. On the other hand, who would deny that for some people religious belief regulates their life, and is unshakable.

Wittgenstein's characterization of religious belief is certainly an adequate description of a relatively small subclass of religious beliefs, one that can be roughly characterized as fideism.[15] In modern times this view has been associated with the kind of sophisticated Protestant thought that has been influenced by existentialism. Indeed, commentators have noted Wittgenstein's debt to Kierkegaard.[16] But this subclass is hardly representative of religious believers in general. If Wittgenstein's is merely talking about this kind of religious belief, then what he says is true but not very interesting.

Now it may be suggested in defense of Wittgenstein that he was not approaching religious belief as a sociologist but rather was providing a normative account of religious belief. Perhaps. But he does not say that he is prescribing rather than describing. Furthermore, if he is giving a normative account, he gives no arguments in his lectures why one should accept his norms. Moreover, a normative interpretation of what he is doing conflicts with the whole spirit of his later philosophy which involved describing how language operates, not prescribing its use. Although it is true that these 1938 lectures occur in a period when Wittgenstein's later philosophy was still developing, in general they are closer in spirit to The Philosophical Investigations where the object of philosophy was to describe common usage and not to construct an ideal language than to the Tractatus.

Religious Belief and Incommensurability

Wittgenstein maintains in several places in his lectures that the religious and the nonreligious person do not contradict one another, appearances notwithstanding. As we saw in the passage quoted above, he says that the person who believes in the Last Judgement and the person who does not do not believe the opposite of one another; and that the person who believes that the body will rot after death and the person who believes in a resurrection of the body do not contradict one another. Rather, the religious and the nonreligious person are said to be on "entirely different planes". In other places in his lectures he says something similar:

If you ask me whether or not I believe in a Judgement Day, in the sense in which religious people have belief in it, I wouldn't say:" No. I don't believe there will be such a thing." It would seem to me utterly crazy to say this.

And then I give an explanation: " I don't believe in ....", but then the religious person never believes what I describe.

I can't say. I can't contradict that person.

In one sense, I understand all he says - the English words "God", "separate", etc. I understand. I could say: "I don't believe in this" and this would be true, meaning I haven't got these thoughts or anything that hangs together with them. But not that I could contradict the thing.[17]

It is not clear exactly clear what Wittgenstein is getting at here. On one possible interpretation he can be understood to be suggesting that religious and nonreligious language is incommensurable in the sense that the same terms have different meaning in religious and nonreligious discourse. Consequently, when the religious person says that X is P and the nonreligious person says that X is not P, they are not contradicting each other since "is P" is used in different senses. On this view his thesis is similar to Thomas Kuhn's thesis about the incommensurability of scientific theories.[18]

Unfortunately, it is far from certain that this is what Wittgenstein means. Although he says that you might express the fact that the religious believer and the nonbeliever are on different planes by saying that they mean something altogether different, he also says "The difference might not show up at all in any explanation of meaning". Some commentators use this statement to argue that Wittgenstein does not completely accept in this lecture the meaning-as-use theme of his later philosophy.[19] But the passage can instead be read as support for the meaning-as-use idea. He can be taken as saying here that the difference of meaning would show up in how two people use the language but not in any verbal explanation of meaning. In other places in his lectures Wittgenstein can be interpreted as being skeptical of appealing to meaning to explain why the believer and the nonbeliever do not completely understand one. Consider:

If Mr. Lewy[20] is religious and says he believes in a Judgement day, I won't even know whether to say I understand him or not. I read the same things as he's read. In a most important sense, I know what he means.

If an atheist says: "There won't be a Judgement Day, and another person says there will be", do they mean the same? - Not clear what criterion of meaning the same is. They might describe the same things. You might say, this already shows that they mean the the same thing.[21]

He seems to be saying here that it is not clear what criterion one can use to judge whether the meaning is the same or different.[22] However, this passage can be understood in another way as well. Perhaps Wittgenstein is groping here for the meaning-as-use theme. Perhaps he should be interpreted as saying that it is not clear what criterion of meaning the same thing is if one thinks of meaning in the traditional way. But if one thinks of it as meaning-as-use, then the believer and nonbeliever do mean the same thing, at least they do in part since they use the Last Judgement language in the same way: that is, to describe the same thing. However, they might also in part use it in different ways. The religious believer might use it to convert people while the nonbeliever would not.

But even if one interprets Wittgenstein as not being skeptical of an appeal to meaning as a way of explicating incommensurability, this would not end the matter. Just as two scientific theories can contradict each other even if they share no predicates with the same sense or reference,[23] there is no a priori reason why the religious expressions of the believer and the nonbeliever could not contradict one another even if they mean something different. Meaning variance does not entail incommensurability.

Another possible interpretation of what Wittgenstein means by saying that the believer and nonbeliever do not contradict one another is that religious language is noncognitive in that it expresses an attitude but does not state anything true or false.[24] Consequently, if the religious person says that X is P and the nonbeliever says that X is not P, there is no contradiction: since neither one has asserted anything, the religious believer and the nonbeliever have express different attitudes. But some Wittgenstein's remarks in his lectures might be interpreted as blocking this interpretation:[25]

Suppose someone, before going to China, when he might never see me again, said to me, "We might see another after death"-- Would I necessarily say that I don't understand him? I might say [ want to say] simply, "Yes, I understand him entirely".

Lewy "In this case, you might only mean that he expressed a certain attitude"

I would say "No, it isn't like the same thing as saying 'I'm very fond of you' " -- and it may not be the same as saying anything else. It says what it says. Why should you be able to substitute anything else?[26]

Now it seems evident that in this passage Wittgenstein is rejecting the suggestion that the sentence "We might see another after death" can be replaced by a sentence that explicitly states an attitude such as "I'm very fond of you". But it does not follow from this that he would reject all noncognitive interpretations of religious language. After all, one might argue that religious language expresses an attitude but this expressive function cannot be replaced by substituting another expression that explicitly states this same attitude. Does the sentence "I am happy" have the same expressive function as the sentence "Hurray!"? It is conceivable that in many cases there is no substitute sentence that expresses exactly the same thing as the original sentence by stating what the original expresses. Indeed, it is doubtful that some of the most sophisticated noncognitive accounts of religious language would maintain that any such substitution was possible.[27]

Wittgenstein might be saying, however, that religious language is noncognitive in the sense that it does not refer, and that it does not refer since there are no empirical entities for religious terms to refer to. Of course, this interpretation might be rejected on the grounds that Wittgenstein would be skeptical of any general account of reference that such an interpretation might presuppose, e.g., the causal theory. He would remind us that we use number words to refer to numbers despite the fact that there can be no causal relation between numbers considered as abstract entities and our practice of referring. Just as he would maintain that there is no property common to all games, he might argue that there is no property common to all the techniques of referring. It makes no sense to ask whether religious language really refers, Wittgenstein would say. The use of referring expressions in religion is similar in some respects but different in others from other uses of such expressions in other language games. Thus, religious language can still refer despite the fact that the technique of referring that belong to this language game is different from that of others games.[28]

Although this interpretation of Wittgenstein is interesting, it is not clear how it helps us to understand why the religious believer and nonbeliever do not contradict one another but nevertheless end up talking past one another. If religious language refers, then presumably religious statements are either true or false. Why then does not the nonbeliever who says that there will not be life after death contradict the believer who says that there will be life? The only reason I can think of is that it is assumed that the nonbeliever and believer are referring to different things. However, Wittgenstein provides no evidence for this assumption and, in any case, as I have already noted, in scientific contexts two people can still contradict each other by the sentences they use even if they refer to different things.[29] I see no reason why the same thing could not be true in religious ones.

If we reject the above interpretations of what Wittgenstein might mean by saying that the religious believer and nonbeliever do not contradict one another, we seem to be left with the thesis that religious belief and nonbelief are incommensurable in some unspecified sense. I have already expressed my reservations about the truth of incommensurability in the sweeping way that Wittgenstein might intend it. But the thesis might be true in some more limited sense; that is, for a certain subclass of religious beliefs. Before we accept even this limited thesis, however, let us note that Wittgenstein cites no evidence for this limited claim in his lectures. He just asserts that the believer and the skeptic do not contradict each other in certain hypothetical cases, that they are talking past one another and are on different planes. Furthermore, he says that this difference would not show up at all in any explanation of meaning.

One wonders, then, how the incommensurability would show up and how anyone can know that there is no contradiction between the believer and nonbeliever even in the cases considered by Wittgenstein. Perhaps it could be argued that one good reason for supposing that the religious person and the atheist are talking past one another is that the religious person is not willing to accept any evidence as counting against a belief while the atheist is. However, whether a religious person would or would not allow any evidence to count against his or her views is hard to determine. Supposing we could determine that the religious person would not, why would this show that the two are on "a different plane" or mean something different by their words? Why would it not simply show that the religious person is being irrational or is talking nonsense? Putting it in the way Wittgenstein puts it seems implicitly to legitimate this practice but it is not at all clear that it should be legitimated. So it seems to me that without further explication and argument the incommensurability thesis is unproven even for a limited class of cases.

Furthermore, the incommensurability thesis has unfortunate implications. If the atheist and the religious believer talk past one another concerning the Last Judgement and other religious matters, could it not be argued that different religious believers do so too? Surely, there are as great differences between some religious believers as between some religious believers and nonbelievers. Thus, it is difficult to see why incommensurability can be argued in the one case only. Consider a Christian who says that Jesus is the Son of God and a Moslem who denies it. On Wittgenstein's view one could be led to say that they do not contradict one another. But if we go this far, why not go farther? Perhaps people in different denominations and sects do not contradict each other when they assert their denominational and sectarian differences. Consider a Catholic who says that the Pope is infallible and a Baptists who says that he is not. Or consider the 17th Century controversy between sects of Baptist. General Baptists maintained that Christ died for all men and Particular Baptists said that Christ died for the elect.[30] Why not say that they were not contradicting each other? It is difficult to see where to stop if we start on the incommensurability road. This is especially true when we have no idea what the claim amounts to and what evidence would be relevant to its evaluation.

I conclude that Wittgenstein does not show in what sense religious beliefs are incommensurable and what evidence would be relevant to evaluating the claim that they are. Indeed, he provides no reason for supposing that the claim is true in some nontrivial way for even some limited class of religious beliefs. Furthermore, he provides no reason why the thesis of incommensurability cannot be pushed to its logical limits by maintaining, for example, that one sect of Baptists is talking past a rival sect. Yet this seems to me a very implausible view and in fact verges on a reductio ad absurdum of the position.

Not Being Reasonable and Being Unreasonable

One of the interesting and puzzling themes in Wittgenstein's lectures is the question of whether religious belief is unreasonable. Wittgenstein maintains that although religious believers are not reasonable they are not unreasonable. He says:

They base things on evidence which taken in one way would be exceedingly flimsy. They base enormous things on this evidence. Am I to say they are unreasonable? I wouldn't call them unreasonable.

I would say, they are certainly not reasonable, that's obvious.

'Unreasonable' implies, with everyone, rebuke.

I want to say: they don't treat this as a matter of reasonability.

Anyone who reads the Epistles will find it said: not only that it is not reasonable, but that it is folly.

Not only is it not reasonable, but it doesn't pretend to be.[31]

It is not clear from these brief remarks what exactly Wittgenstein understands the difference to be between not being reasonable and being unreasonable except that being "unreasonable" is a term of rebuke and being "not reasonable" is not. One might suppose that he is drawing the kind of distinction that is sometimes made by the terms "not rational" and "irrational"; that is, between believing something that the evidence does not support and believing something that the evidence tells against. But this interpretation becomes less plausible given his remarks on the Epistles. Although this passage is capable of being interpreted in several ways, it is plausible to suppose that Wittgenstein is (rather carelessly) referring not to 'the Epistles' in general but to 1 Corinthians Ch. 1 where Paul says that "the word of the cross is folly" to some people. This indicates that Wittgenstein thinks the Christian message is foolish or absurd to some people. But this suggests that to some people the evidence is not just flimsy but weighs against it truth. However, he does not seem to suppose that believing the word of the cross is unreasonable. So perhaps by "unreasonable" Wittgenstein does not mean "irrational".

In any case, it is not clear why believing religious claims which by Wittgenstein's own admission are supported only by flimsy evidence is something that should not call for rebuke. There is surely a prima facie case to made for the epistemological principle that we should believe only what we have good evidence to believe and that we are being epistemologically irresponsible if we do otherwise.[32] But let us waive this point and concentrate on something far less controversial. Some religious beliefs are not just not well supported by the evidence. They are improbable in the light of the evidence. Thus, belief in them is irrational in the sense just introduced. Wittgenstein does not explicitly consider these sorts of beliefs except by implication in his reference to the folly of the Epistles, that is, the folly of the word of the cross to some people. But consider the thesis that the earth is only several thousand years old which is believed by millions of fundamentalist Christians. Would Wittgenstein say that this belief is not unreasonable and should not call for rebuke since it does not pretend to be reasonable?

Or consider the belief that Jesus was a real human being who lived in the First Century, A.D. Obviously, this belief is held not only by fundamentalists but by almost all Christians. Let us suppose that an examination of the historical evidence indicates that not only is the evidence for the historicity of Jesus flimsy but that his existence is improbable in the light of this evidence. Would Wittgenstein say that belief in the historicity of Jesus was not unreasonable for Christians and should not call for rebuke since it does not pretend to be reasonable? I do not know. But his admiration of Kierkegaard and his reference to the folly of the Epistles, that is, to the folly of the message of the cross to some people, suggests that he might hold this view. As I read Kierkegaard, he maintains that one should believe in Christianity despite the absurdity of its doctrines.[33]

If this is an implication of Wittgenstein's views on religious belief it is not only wrong but dangerous. There are good historical reasons for not being irrational in this way. Believing and acting on beliefs despite the evidence against them has been a hallmark of fanaticism, one of the great evils of history.[34] Historically speaking, fanaticism has caused untold suffering and death when it has been associated with either political or religious belief. If it is permissible to believe the fundamental doctrines of religion despite the evidence, why would it not be permissible to believe despite the evidence that God wants us to start a holy war or that God wants to rid the world of people who worship differently from us? Why would it not be permissible despite the evidence to believe in Aryan racial supremacy? Once we allow belief despite the evidence to gain prominence in one area there is no reason why this irrationalism would not spread to other areas. Thus, irrationalism has potentially dangerous consequences.

In addition, I think that if one believes something despite the evidence, one is being epistemologically irresponsible.[35] Part of what it means to say that one is epistemologically responsible is that one does not believe something that goes against the evidence. Epistemic responsibility is an important intellectual virtue that has often been overlooked but is closely related to virtues such as honesty and impartiality. It seems to me that the intellectual virtues are important and worthwhile for a civilized society in general and for the life of the mind in particular.


I have argued first that the scope of Wittgenstein's claims concerning the nature of religious belief is unclear. As a general claim about the nature of all religious belief it is false. As a claim about the nature of some religious belief it is uninteresting. Second, I have argued that he provides no clear case for the incommensurability of the language of believers and nonbelievers and that, if pressed, the thesis of incommensurability absurdly shows that religious believers of rival sects are talking past one another. Third, I have argued that Wittgenstein gives no good reason to suppose that religious belief based on flimsy evidence should not be subject to rebuke. In relation to this point I have contended that what he would say about belief that is opposed to the evidence is not completely clear but, insofar as his views are influenced by Kierkegaard, he would perhaps say that this kind of belief is not subject to rebuke either. I have tried to show that in this he would be mistaken.


[1] L. Wittgenstein, "Lectures on Religious Beliefs", in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief as compiled from notes taken by Yorick Smythies, Rush Rhees, and James Taylor and edited by Cyril Barrett, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966), pp. 53 - 72. In the preface the editor, Cyril Barrett, says that "Besides the notes of the conversations on Freud, those of the fourth lecture on aesthetics are by Rush Rhees; the rest are by Smythies". This has suggested to some commentators that the notes on the "Lectures on Religious Belief" were all taken by Smythies but it is not completely clear that this is correct. In any case, Kai Nielsen in An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982), p. 44 says that the notes were taken by Smythies whereas Putnam in his unpublished paper "Wittgenstein on Religious Belief" says that the notes were taken by Wittgenstein's students.

[2] See Cyril Barrett's "Preface" to Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief.

[3] Wittgenstein also makes some enigmatic remarks on religion in a lectures on ethics given in Cambridge between September 1929 and December 1930. (See Ludwig Wittgenstein, "A Lecture on Ethics", Philosophical Review, XLVIII, 1972, pp. 38 -54). G.E. Moore also refers briefly to Wittgenstein's remarks on God in his notes on Wittgenstein's lectures from 1930-33. See G.E. Moore, Philosophical Papers, (London:Allen and Unwin, 1962).

[4] I do not attempt here to relate Wittgenstein's own views on religion to those of his followers. On this relation see Nielsen, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Chapters 3-5.

[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, (New York: Macmillan, 1953).

[6] See George Pitchard, The Philosophy of Wittgenstein (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1964), p. 217.

[7] Wittgenstein, "Lectures on Religious Beliefs", p. 54.

[8] See Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner's Son, 1958).

[9] Wittgenstein, "Lectures on Religious Beliefs", pp. 53 -54.

[10] Ibid. , p. 57.

[11] Ibid. , p. 57.

[12] See for example, Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).

[13] H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Twenty-ninth Revised Edition, (Herder: Freiburg i-Breisgau, 1953), §1806, §1813 cited by Antony Flew, God: A Critical Inquiry (La Salle,Ill.: Open Court, 1984) p. 6, 136.

[14] See Burnham P. Beckwith, "The Effects of Education on Religious Faith", Free Inquiry, 2, Winter 1981/ 82, pp. 26 - 31; "The Effects of Intelligence on Religious Faith", Free Inquiry, 6, Spring 1986, pp. 46 - 53.

[15] See Richard Popkin, "Fideism", The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 3 ed. Paul Edwards (New York and London: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc. and The Free Press, 1967), pp. 201 -202.

[16] See Pritchard, The Philosophy of Wittgenstein, p. 11. Hilary Putnam has also noted this in "Wittgenstein on Religious Belief".

[17] Wittgenstein, "Lectures on Religious Beliefs", p. 55.

[18] See Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[19] Putnam suggests this in "Wittgenstein on Religious Belief".

[20] Casmir Lewy was one of the students present at Wittgenstein's lectures.

[21] Wittgenstein, "Lectures on Religious Beliefs", p. 58.

[22] This interpretation is offered by Putnam in "Wittgenstein on Religious Belief".

[23] See Michael Martin, "Referential Variance and Scientific Objectivity", British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 22, 1971, pp. 17 -26.

[24] For this interpretation of religious language see R. B. Braithwaite, An Empiricist's View of the Nature of Religious Beliefs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955) reprinted in The Logic of God ed. Malcolm L. Diamond and Thomas V. Litzenburg (Indianapolis: The Bobbs- Merrill Company, Inc. 1975), pp. 127- 147.

[25] This interpretation is offered by Putnam in "Wittgenstein on Religious Belief".

[26] Wittgenstein, "Lectures on Religious Beliefs", pp. 70 -71.

[27] See Braithwaite, An Empiricist's View of the Nature of Religious Beliefs.

[28] This interpretation of Wittgenstein and the criticism of it are suggested by Putnam in "Wittgenstein on Religious Belief".

[29] See Martin, "Referential Variance and Scientific Objectivity", British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 22, 1971, pp. 17 -26.

[30] See E. Royston Pike, "Baptists", The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Religions (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), p. 45.

[31] Wittgenstein "Lectures on Religious Beliefs", pp. 57 -58.

[32] See Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia, PA.:Temple University Press, 1990), Chapter 1

[33] See, for example, Sören Kierkegaard, "Subjectivity and Truth", in Philosophy of Religion, ed. Louis P. Pojman, (Belmont, CA.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1987), pp. 407 -408.

[34] Walter Kaufmann is certainly correct when he calls fanaticism "one of the scourges of humanity". See Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1959), pp. 178.

[35] Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Chapter 2. See also, Lorraine Code, Epistemic Responsibility, (Hanover, N.H. University Press of New England, 1987).

"Wittgenstein's Lectures on Religious Belief" appeared originally in the Heythrop Journal 32 (1991): 369-382 and is electronically republished by permission of Basil Blackwell.
The electronic version is copyrighted © 2001 by Michael Martin and the Internet Infidels. All rights reserved.